Ukraine at 24


David Marples

On its 24th anniversary, Ukraine’s problems continue to multiply: the GDP continues to fall, if not as catastrophically as last year and the possibility of default in payment of debts remains high; the Minsk-2 ceasefire barely holds in the east as conflict continues with the separatist “governments” of the DNR and LNR; the government has not yet made much progress in eliminating the power of oligarchs; and the popularity of the pro-Western leaders President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk has plummeted since last year.

Underlying its problems are relations with Russia, its largest and most powerful neighbor. Over the twenty-four years the relationship has fluctuated though the debating points have invariably been the same.

First of all, the territorial divisions resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 remained unresolved. For the Russians, the presence of Crimea and the port of Sevastopol in newly independent Ukraine caused concern, mainly but not exclusively because of the presence and potential fate of the Black Sea Fleet. The Russian Duma, rather than Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, flatly opposed the “loss” of an autonomous republic that it had “donated” to Ukraine in 1954.

Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, the first Ukrainian president, held several meetings on the future of the Fleet while a noisy pro-Russian nationalist movement flourished on the peninsula. The Treaty of Friendship signed by the two presidents in 1997 appeared to have clarified most questions, with Russia retaining over 80% of the fleet, and leasing two bays in Sevastopol. Ukraine previously has abolished the position of Crimean president ending attempts to hold a referendum on the future of the region.

Second, Ukrainian independence in 1991 came with an announcement that the new state would be neutral and non-aligned. After some initial reluctance, the country relinquished its Soviet arsenal of nuclear weapons, as did Belarus and Kazakhstan before it, having been guaranteed its security by United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, in 1994. Ukraine never formally ratified the CIS Treaty and there was little thought of joining NATO.

Third, Ukraine found itself dependent on Russia for energy resources, first and foremost oil and gas. It provided the pipeline in turn for much of Russian gas exported to Central and Western Europe. Disputes over gas prices highlighted most high-level summits between the leaders. Russian government involvement in Gazprom dates from late 1992 when company Chairman Viktor Chernomyrdin was appointed Prime Minister of Russia. Privatization of the company in 1993-94 ended in 2005 when the Russian government obtained a majority stake. Since that date, Gazprom and the Russian government have operated as one.

Ukraine’s own gas interests run deep (including the infamous United Energy Systems of Ukraine company of the 1990s run by Yulia Tymoshenko), but it has fought hard to control its own assets by and large. Most Ukrainian oligarchs successfully built mini business empires without intrusion from their powerful counterparts in Russia. Others, like Dmytro Firtash and his company RosUkrEnergo, made careers out of bargaining between the two, while maintaining close ties with the government leaders in Kyiv and Moscow.

Perhaps the key difference to development in Russia and Ukraine is that in the latter, the business empires were diverse and constituted separate centers of power. In Russia after 2000, though oligarchs remained very powerful, they either refrained from political aspirations or else formed close ties with the leadership. In Ukraine the restraints were few. And once they entered the political arena, they controlled it closely. Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, financed the Regions Party and its leader Viktor Yanukovych, as well as running successfully for the party in the parliamentary elections of 2006. The eastern oligarchs reached the culmination point of their power in 2005 when Yanukovych became president.

Critics, correctly, have blamed Yanukovych for the mass corruption during his presidency, a time when the rule of law receded before a system of cronyism and mass aggrandizement of wealth in government circles and among deputies of parliament. The ultimate failure of the Orange Revolution manifested itself in the willingness of former president Yushchenko to work with Yanukovych, appointing him Prime Minister in 2006-07 as well as supporting his imprisonment of former Orange partner but now implacable enemy, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Frequently Western media refer to Yanukovych as a “pro-Moscow” leader. The appellation is only partially true. Yanukovych, like his patron Akhmetov, was interested first and foremost in personal success, affluence and power of the Donetsk region, and his acolytes there and in government. Vladimir Putin was a reliable friend and partner, who did not intrude in Yanukovych’s fiefdom, which appeared secure and was a more dependable neighbor than under his predecessor Yushchenko. But the relationship has many facets and it is doubtful whether Putin fully trusted him, not least because Ukraine’s business elite also sought closer ties with the European Union.

During the years of independence, Ukraine achieved a number of positive steps that in terms of democratic steps outpaced its Slavic neighbors. Its presidential elections have been held regularly and by and large fairly—the first round in 2004 notwithstanding—and Poroshenko is its fifth president, compared to Russia’s three and Belarus’ one. The composition of its parliament likewise has changed regularly. There has always been diversity of opinion, and the media, though at times restricted under Kuchma and Yanukovych, has been largely free. It has also begun to wrest itself from reliance on Russia for energy imports.

Euromaidan illustrated, inter alia, the growth of civil activism, a desire to throw off shackles of the past, and to end corruption, in what was termed a “revolution of dignity.” Ukrainians—perhaps in the majority (and especially amoung those under twenty-five)—perceived the EU as an ideal that could complete and consolidate the path to a western-style democracy. That the ideal was naïve or unrealistic, or that it became contorted and itself somewhat corrupted, should not detract from the initial impressive demonstration of public will, when tens of thousands braved bitterly cold nights to remain on the Maidan.

Yet Euromaidan brought a dramatic break with the past, the consequences of which are still being felt. Russia regards it as a pro-Western right-wing coup that removed a legitimate—if very weak—president from office. Russian troops snatched Crimea without warning, and tried to move further by backing separatists in Donetsk, Luhansk, Odesa, and other regions. But the’Novorossiya’ concept was abandoned—at least by the Russian government—within a few months.

Ukraine responded by mounting an “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) that was initially quite successful until direct Russian intervention halted its advance, and later by signing the Association Agreement with the EU, which Yanukovych had opted to reject, as well as the more recent banning of the Communist Party. It moved away from the careful multi-vectored foreign policy of Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) and committed itself to a pro-Western and pro-European path, albeit one hardly strewn with roses or clear direction.

Activists of the late 1980s and of the Orange Revolution justifiably see links between the events of their eras and Euromaidan. But perhaps those connections lie more in the origins than what took place on the square. The violence of the past year has exceeded by far anything in the history of independent Ukraine, and one would need to reach back to the 1950s for any analogies in the Soviet period.

Euromaidan was also about the forming of a national identity, interpretations of the past, and visions of the future. Some critics maintain that extremists are dictating policy and trying to limit free expression. Others claim that Russia’s truculence derives from Western and NATO advances rather than the Kremlin’s beligerence. The situation in the disputed regions resembles in its devastation that in North Africa or Iraq and Ukraine’s ATO played its own role, though the question of how one deals with an enemy esconced within major towns is one with which Western governments have also struggled to deal.

Former president Kravchuk now advocates the abandonment of the separatist enclaves, while the DNR and LNR leaders promise a referendum after local elections in the fall on “union with Russia,” a notion hardly palatable to Moscow. The alternative to voluntary relinquishment of the breakaway regions seems to be a frozen conflict, sapping the finances of Ukraine, and perpetuating the economic crisis. The imperfect analogies of Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetiya are hardly cause for optimism.

Perhaps the biggest dilemma for the Ukrainian leadership is what to do next. Any form of compromise with Vladimir Putin would be regarded by some as a sign of weakness; yet a failure to reach some accommodation suggests intransigence. Armed battalions doing much of the fighting in the east are openly dissatisfied with the Poroshenko leadership and threaten another Maidan. Yet a wholesale government crackdown on anti-separatist/anti-Russian elements is inconceivable. The leaders can take some solace from the fact that the extremists could not win a democratic election—but they are unlikely to lay down their weapons.

In the midst of such turmoil, the questions about economic and administrative reforms appear peripheral, but they are too pressing to ignore. The formerly powerful steel industry is in deep decline; the venerable Donbas coalfield is yet another victim of the conflict and many coal mines are faced with closure, their miners often unpaid. Akhmetov’s company DTEK stands accused of fueling miners’ unrest and protests, which have focused on removing Energy and Coal Minister Volodymyr Demchyshyn.

The twenty-four years have shown above all, that Ukrainians wish to live in an independent state, with limited influence from and no control by outside neighbors. They would benefit if the holders of wealth invested in Ukraine rather than their own companies and interests. They would also gain by moving closer to the EU agreement but not necessarily as NATO members, following the examples of Finland (the closest case to Ukraine as part of the former Russian Empire), Sweden, Austria, Ireland, and Switzerland.

But if such a route were taken, it could only be through a binding treaty with Russia and the United States, guaranteeing its territorial integrity, possibly without Crimea (though its annexation should not be recognized) and the conflicted regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Should Russia refuse to come to the table, then NATO membership could be advanced as the only alternative. Russia in turn would have to abandon the DNR and LNR “governments” to their fates. Internal fighting and vendettas such as the recent purge of the Cossacks will likely see their demise shortly in any case, a consequence that one suspects would be acceptable to the Kremlin but for the loss of prestige it would signify.

Lastly, on the relationship with Russia: the crass propaganda emanating from government-paid sources in that country has been unceasing for over a year. But the cacophony of anti-Russian statements and editorials on the Western side has also been sustained, if less vociferous. Yet this year marks just two decades since the abandonment of the pro-Western foreign policy by the Kremlin. Even in 1996, Western agencies were helping the ailing Russian president Yeltsin to win reelection. In short, the current situation—what some have termed a “new Cold War—is not immutable.

And while full reengagement may appear far-fetched, overt hostility toward Russia on the part of the West is plainly counter-productive. Putin’s cooperation with the United States in Iran shows that some avenues for dialogue exist, and several EU countries would prefer to keep the window to the east open for trade. In short there is no united front against the Russian Federation. Moreover, it is facile to blame Russia for all Ukraine’s economic problems, which by some indicators were worse in 2011 than they are today.

Ultimately, Ukraine cannot choose its neighbors. Hence it has to coexist with them one way or another. The same can be said of its relations with opposition political parties, and former Regions-era oligarchs, as long as they wish to work for and within the country—it would be difficult to make progress without using the assets of its business elite, including those who were missing-in-action during Euromaidan. The country also needs a period of stability that may depend on rapprochement between the Western powers and Russia, but which can be catalyzed by its own actions.

All these requirements suggest that Ukraine’s 25th year might be best spent in seeking solutions and compromises to the problems that engulf the state: working with the EU while improving relations with Russia; ensuring that oligarchs, if they are to remain, work with the government and not in their own interests; improving the training and equipping of the army; implementing economic and administrative reforms; and using foreign loans to offset the financial impasse.

Успіху і вітання всім моїм друзям в Україні!

About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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